A boy, barely a teenager, sprays his schoolyard with bullets. A black woman and white man become lifelong friends despite living in a town filled with racial conflict and strife. A group of top-level executives--the best and the brightest--blunder into an avoidable decision that bankrupts their company, all because they fail to share crucial information with one another.
What causes people to become murderously violent? Why do some people maintain their racial prejudices throughout their lives whereas others replace their hatreds with tolerance and respect? When do people work best as a group and when are they better off alone? If you find questions such as these intriguing, you should consider a career in personality and/or social psychology.
Topics of Study
How do people come to be who they are? How do people think about, influence, and relate to one another? These are the broad questions that personality and social psychologists strive to answer. By exploring forces within the person (such as traits, attitudes, and goals) as well as forces within the situation (such as social norms and incentives), personality and social psychologists seek to unravel the mysteries of individual and social life in areas as wide-ranging as prejudice, romantic attraction, persuasion, friendship, helping, aggression, conformity, and group interaction. Although personality psychology has traditionally focused on aspects of the individual, and social psychology on aspects of the situation, the two perspectives are tightly interwoven in psychological explanations of human behavior.
A Scientific Approach
At some level, we are all personality and social psychologists, observing our social worlds and trying to understand why people behave, think, and feel as they do. In the aftermath of schoolyard shootings we can hardly help but hypothesize answers to the many questions that come to mind. We do the same when we encounter less dramatic events in our everyday lives: Why is that person smiling at me? Will my professor be a hard grader? How might I persuade my neighbor to keep his cats off my car? But personality and social psychologists go beyond pondering such questions and their possible answers. If the lives of individuals and social groups are full of mystery, then personality and social psychologists are the detectives investigating these mysteries. Systematically observing and describing people's actions, measuring or manipulating aspects of social situations, these sleuths use the methods of science to reveal the answers to the kinds of puzzling questions we each encounter every day.
Basic and Applied Research
Scientists in all fields distinguish between basic and applied research. Basic research in personality and social psychology tends to focus on fundamental questions about people and their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Where does an individual's personality come from? What causes us to fall in love, hate our neighbor, or join with others to clean our neighborhoods? How are the psychologies of being male and female similar, how are they different, and why? How does culture shape who we become and how we interact with one another? Questions such as these aim at the very heart of human nature.
Applied research in personality and social psychology focuses on more narrow arenas of human life, such as health, business, and law. By employing the lessons learned from basic research, and by searching for insights specific to particular domains, applied research often seeks to enhance the quality of our everyday lives. Personality and social psychologists contribute to areas as diverse as health, business, law, the environment, education, and politics. For example, personality and social psychologists have designed, implemented, and evaluated programs to help employers hire and train better workers; to make it easier for people with cancer to cope successfully with their challenge; to increase the likelihood that people will reduce pollution by relying on public transportation; to reduce prejudices and intergroup conflict in the classroom and in international negotiations; to make computers and other technologies more user-friendly; and to make many other societal contributions as well.
Of course, the distinction between basic and applied research is often a fuzzy one. One can certainly perform basic research in applied domains, and the findings from each type of research enrich the other. Indeed, it would be fair to say that most personality and social psychologists have both basic and applied interests.
Because personality and social psychologists combine an understanding of human behavior with training in sophisticated research methods, they have many opportunities for employment. Many psychologists teach and do research in universities and colleges, housed mostly in departments of psychology but also in departments of business, education, political science, justice studies, law, health sciences, and medicine. The research of such individuals may be based in the laboratory, in the field, in the clinic, or in historical archives. Many personality and social psychologists are employed in the private sector as consultants, researchers, marketing directors, managers, political strategists, technology designers, and so on. Personality and social psychologists also work in government and nonprofit organizations, designing and evaluating policy and programs in education, conflict resolution, environmental protection, and the like.
Becoming a Social/Personality Psychologist
Although some personality and social psychologists go to graduate school to earn a terminal masters degree (M.S. or M.A.), most seek a doctoral degree (Ph.D.). For some careers, a masters degree may be sufficient. Generally, however, the doctorate is preferred by employers and is usually necessary for employment as a professor at a university or college.
Most Ph.D. programs in personality and social psychology require 4-5 years of training and study. The goal of most programs is similar: To prepare each student to become an independent, professional researcher. As a result, most programs teach the conceptual foundations and knowledge of the discipline, develop the student's ability to think theoretically, and train the student in research methodology, data analysis, and research writing and presentation. Programs differ, however, in the areas of research they focus on and in their emphasis on training students for academic versus nonacademic careers. Because graduate training revolves around research, it is important that students pay particular attention to the specific faculty members with whom they are likely to work. Prospective students should give full consideration not only to the perspectives and research activities of a potential graduate program on the whole, but also to those of their probable faculty mentors.
Admission to graduate programs in personality and social psychology is very competitive; there are far more applicants than openings (most programs enroll just a few new students each year). As a result, entry qualifications are rigorous: Most admitted students have earned high undergraduate grades and a bachelor's degree from an accredited university or college; many have been undergraduate psychology majors, although this isn't a requirement in many programs; most have had experience doing psychology research; most have demonstrated strong quantitative, verbal, and analytical abilities, as revealed in their scores on the Graduate Record Exam (GRE); and most have been evaluated by their undergraduate teachers in confidential letters of recommendation as being smart, talented, creative, hard-working, and conscientious. Of course, different programs have different standards and criteria for admission, and the prospective student should explore those articulated by programs of interest.
Most personality and social psychology programs provide financial assistance to their graduate students in the form of teaching or research assistantships, and many schools waive tuition and fees at the graduate level. This, too, varies from school to school.
For More Information
Students seeking admission into graduate school have several useful sources of information available to them. The American Psychological Association publishes annually a list of graduate programs in Graduate Study in Psychology and Associated Fields. In addition, Social Psychology Network maintains links to graduate programs with web pages. Each graduate program will mail program descriptions by request. By reading journals such as the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, and Personality and Social Psychology Review, students can expose themselves to cutting-edge research in personality and social psychology. Similar information can be discovered by searching relevant computerized databases (e.g., PsycINFO). Finally, students can gain much useful information by consulting with the personality and social psychologists in the psychology departments at their home or nearby colleges and universities.
The fields of personality and social psychology are fascinating and increasingly important. We invite you to check them out!